Smoke, Mirrors and “Getting Things Done in Washington”: Comparing Apples to Apples

Last year Hillary Clinton was criticized by Jeb Bush for not being effective as a United States Senator. At that time, two experts who study Congress — Norman Ornstein, a scholar at American Enterprise Institute, and Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and Brookings Institution scholar — said that the number of sponsored or co-sponsored bills signed into law isn’t a thorough measure of effectiveness or productivity for a member of the Senate.

“Offering amendments on the floor, holding hearings, contributing to oversight, helping to negotiate agreements, pushing federal agencies to be responsive to constituents back home — all of these might contribute to making a senator ‘effective,’ but none of these endeavors of course would show up in a count of bills sponsored or passed or enacted,” Binder said, adding that it’s fair game to also look at the number of bills [a legislator] co-sponsored. In other words, legislative influence goes beyond having your name as a sponsor or co-sponsor. Senators weigh in with amendments, debate and negotiations.

For months Clinton has been touting her own experience, calling herself the stronger candidate compared to Bernie Sanders on her accomplishments. She has been trying very hard to create a meme of her greater ability to get things done in government.  In his approach to work in Congress, Sanders has never been particularly concerned with putting his name on every piece of legislation, preferring to focus on doing whatever is needed to pass it. That’s key– it’s why Clinton’s experience is touted while Sanders appears to some to take a back seat to her in that regard.

But let’s look beyond the hype. These two people have followed two very different paths during their service. One has followed the blueprints for getting legislation passed in Washington, whether name recognition is involved or not. The other wields considerable influence, but is driven to use it only if she is seen and given credit of the most visible kind. One candidate is laser-focused on what he sees as a movement for social change; the other,  not by a movement, but by her own drive for personal power.

That drive for power took a particularly nasty turn recently during the New York primary when Clinton’s operatives, desperate to stop Sanders’ momentum, were quoted as saying they would begin a campaign to “disqualify and defeat” him. Sanders, quite uncharacteristically, saw no alternative but to respond in kind. Days later, after significant damage was caused between the two campaigns and licking her chops after her New York victory, Clinton doubled down on her disinterest in any sweeping movement for change during a Town Hall hosted by Rachel Maddow on April 25th. Maddow asked Clinton whether she would entertain proposals from Sanders’ supporters for changes in the structure of the Democratic Party going forward, but Clinton clearly displayed unwillingness to discuss such proposals. By doing so, she smugly dismissed the concerns of independents, who are the largest single voting bloc. They are not likely to forget that soon.

Beyond the high emotion surrounding the dispute about the future of the Party, comparing apples to apples on their time in Congress is a fair and objective way to look at these two individuals. It also acknowledges that their executive experience should be looked at separately, and not confused with their representation of constituents.

Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000 and served a full term, then was re-elected handily in 2006. As early as spring of the following year, press reports indicated that her sights were set on the White House and the money was already rolling in. She ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against Barack Obama and subsequently requested a position in his cabinet, whereupon he offered her the position of Secretary of State and she resigned her senate seat in early 2009 to accept it.

Clinton undoubtedly has accomplishments she can point to while in the Senate, as the above comments in the quoted article indicate. However, in nine debates since last fall, she has not given us many concrete and specific examples of it. Notable exceptions are her representation of NYC first responders after 9/11, and what she describes as her calling out of Wall Street banks on their conduct during the mounting financial crisis of 2007. In a much-publicized argument with Sanders on the eve of the Michigan primary, she also pointed out that she voted for the auto industry bailout twice. For the most part, she prefers to tie her experience to her service as Secretary of State and previous experience as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund and as First Lady during her husband’s administration. She also positions herself implicitly as the heir to the Obama legacy and a continuation of what the current President stands for, which she emphasizes will include continuing to allow private insurance companies to set rates for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act for the foreseeable future, while supposedly working toward a single payer system.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders was elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 and served as Vermont’s only Congressman continuously until 2006. While there, he caucused with Democrats and co-founded what is now known as the House Progressive Caucus. In the last few decades the House has only been controlled by Democrats during a brief period from 2007-2010. Yet it was there that this Socialist congressman earned the nickname “The Amendment King”, as well as the respect of colleagues for his ability to work behind the scenes and across party lines to accomplish progressive legislative objectives.  Some of the most important items he was responsible for while serving include:

  • Beginning his political career with an amendment starting a national program of cancer registries, which is now maintained by all 50 states.
  • A 2001 amendment to the general appropriations bill which banned the importation of goods made with child labor.
  • An amendment to increase funding by $100 million for community health centers.
  • A 1995 Sanders amendment to the Victims Justice Act of 1995 required “offenders who are convicted of fraud and other white-collar crimes to give notice to victims and other persons in cases where there are multiple victims eligible to receive restitution.
  • In April 1998 an amendment to H.R. 6, the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, Sanders made a change to the law that allowed the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to make competitive grants available to colleges and universities that cooperated to reduce costs through joint purchases of goods and services.
  • Sanders amendment in June of 2005 brought together a bipartisan coalition that successfully prohibited the Export-Import Bank from providing loans to corporations for nuclear projects in China.

In the Senate, he continued pushing amendments through legislation:

  • Sanders used an amendment to win $10 million for operation and maintenance of the Army National Guard, which had been stretched thin and overextended by the war in Iraq.
  • His work also included providing financial assistance for childcare to people in the armed forces,
  • exposing corruption in the military industrial complex,
  • support in treating autism in the military’s healthcare system, and
  • ensuring bailout funds weren’t used to displace American workers.

In 2010, Sanders waged an (unsuccessful) 8 1/2 –hour filibuster against the extension of the Bush-era corporate tax cuts. In 2012, he was re-elected to the Senate with 71% of the vote. He continues to serve in his present seat and attend to Senate business when Congress is in session. He currently chairs the Committee on Veterans Affairs, and was recently able to work with Republican Senator John McCain to pass a comprehensive set of bi-partisan reforms for veterans’ health care.

Aside from judgment of the inner motivation driving the two candidates, it is clear that Bernie Sanders has a stellar record as a legislator, one that easily stands up to Clinton’s claim of “knowing how to get things done”. Sanders has a much longer record in the Senate and has served in not one but both houses of Congress. His experience outside the Beltway shows that his ability to serve as a CEO is of equal caliber; Burlington, Vermont is the home of some very impressive community initiatives that have been copied nationally and were begun with the backing of his mayoral administration.

Bernie has been working for forty years to rebuild the kind of America that his parents believed in when his father first came here from Poland. Hillary talks about taking a job for the Children’s Defense Fund right out of Yale Law School for $14,000. Sounds like the kind of sacrifice a young liberal crusader might make, doesn’t it? However, the average salary for a graduate in the early ‘70s was around $7,000, making her position pretty cushy. Boo hoo, Hillary. Such a life of hardship you have led.

Moira MacLean

Moira MacLean started out many moons ago with a law degree from the University of Oregon, but found actual law practice didn't suit her well. Since that realization (early 90s) she has assisted students with college admissions and financial aid matters and deepened her expertise in organizational development, starting and running several nonprofit organizations in human services and community mental health. She has recently been developing a consulting practice in the field while finishing a master's degree.